We’ve been raising monarch caterpillars at work for the last month. A woman we affectionately dubbed “The Butterfly Lady” came in with an aquarium full of milkweed and caterpillars the length of your pinky nail — dozens of them. You’d have never noticed them from afar.
Most of those poor things died. It wasn’t our fault. Apparently the milkweed had pesticide. The Butterfly Lady apologized profusely.
For all the fallen caterpillars, three survived. And once we got them healthy milkweed to eat, they ate to their little hearts’ content.
I had no idea that for the next few weeks, I’d see so much of myself and the story of us all in these three caterpillars.
It started out as silly observations:
Wow, those caterpillars sure do like to eat, don’t they?
Wow, those caterpillars sure do poop bigger poops than you’d think, don’t they?
Wow, those caterpillars got huge really quick, didn’t they?
Within just a couple days, those pinky nail-sized crawlies grew to the length of an entire pinky finger. And then an index finger.
They ate and they ate, they pooped and they pooped. We held our breath over their continued growth and survival despite the pesticide of the past, and we grew more confident about these three little chompers.
Then out of the blue, with no warning whatsoever, the smallest of the bunch decided not to eat or poop anymore.
He decided to climb.
I probably stared at that caterpillar for twenty minutes, hanging there from the aquarium roof, curled in a J.
How did he know to stop eating?
How did he know where to climb?
How did he know why to climb?
There he was, just dangling there while his two big brothers continued chomping away at milkweed down below.
I wondered if this caterpillar knew at all what he was doing up there. If he knew what was coming next or if he knew only to live step by step, climb by climb, trusting some mysterious voice in this process.
I broke away from the J-caterpillar for lunch, and when we returned an hour later, he had already tucked himself inside a green chrysalis rimmed with gold. The pod was half the size of the caterpillar, and I wondered how he even fit inside.
Within the next 24 hours, one of his brothers would climb up and form a pod right alongside him.
And then another day later, the last of the lot too felt the call to climb.
For two long weeks, we sat and waited while three chrysalises (not, in fact, chrysali) dangled from an empty aquarium roof. The students had class, the students had lunch, I clocked in, I clocked out, night fell, the sun rose, and for fourteen days the three chrysalises looked practically the same, a green glaze with gold flecks.
And then one chrysalis — the first one, the smallest caterpillar — turned black. You could lean in for a closer look and see stripes and dots and even tinges of orange beneath the black.
Something was happening inside that chrysalis.
Something was burning.
Something was birthing.
You know, the butterfly metaphor is such a cliché for transformation. We talk about turning caterpillars into butterflies all the time, and yet how often have we actually witnessed this transformation up close from beginning to end? Have we ever?
Up until this month, I never had.
These last few weeks, I’ve caught myself staring at caterpillars and chrysalises for untold minutes at a time while the teacher teaches and the students learn, my gaze stolen by these legs and colors and wings and metaphors unfurling before my eyes.
The smallest caterpillar becomes the first butterfly.
Not all the caterpillars survive.
The ones that make it know just what to do.
The waiting. The waiting. The waiting.
And after enough waiting, the doing: the breaking free, the stretching, the flying.
We opened the aquarium to release the first butterfly — a female, actually, according to her markings — right as one of our students graduated to the next phase of our program: Transformation Phase, fittingly.
I watched her flutter away from the glass cage that held her for from the time she was a pinky nail clipping on a milkweed leaf, and she very much looked like a toddler learning to toddle. She wavered left, then right, then in a sort of circling dive-bomb. Her orange wings glistened in the sun, and she gained more strength the longer she tossed and turned in the breeze.
A dozen of us stood there and watched her, and eventually she found her way to our neighbors’ garden filled with flowers and bushes. And there her journey continues.
This is life — for the caterpillar and for you and I.
The littleness and the survival.
The learning and the climbing.
The falling and the changing.
The waiting and the doing.
The cages and the freedom and the challenges to come.
All we like butterflies have gone astray. Each of us to his own way.
And all we like butterflies were also made for newness.
Despite how long and how hard and how frustrating this newness is, I figure if three determined caterpillars can pursue it, do it, live it, so can I.
So can all of us.